With the potential release of the Umpqua Community College criminal investigation nearing, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin is pleading with lawmakers to block public access to images related to death investigations in Oregon.
Hanlin says the public release of gruesome photos would never be appropriate and that any publication of the photos would be a “form of sensationalism that is immoral, unethical and harmful.”
“I firmly believe that the disclosure of photographs and/or images of deceased victims of crime should be diligently protected,” Hanlin wrote in a statement submitted to the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee.
But media experts say the bill, Senate Bill 508, is too vague and question whether the bill is focused at fixing an existing problem, or whether it’s looking for a problem to solve.
The original text of the bill would add to Oregon’s list of public records exemptions new language that would exempt any image “related to” a death from being released. Critics of the bill say it is too ambiguous, applying not only to photos of the victim, but to images of fatal car crashes, fatal fires, prison inmate deaths and police shootings, which would all lead to reduced government accountability and transparency.
A few months after the UCC shooting, Hanlin approached Oregon senators Jeff Kruse and Floyd Prozanski about the possibility of the bill, urging the lawmakers to pass the legislation. Kruse said he liked the idea, but the initial attempt didn’t make much progress during the short session.
Now in its second attempt, Kruse said the bill shouldn’t have any problems, especially with the trauma of the shooting still so fresh.
“This is generic, so it isn’t pointed directly at UCC, but it is,” he said.
“When we have these horrific events, quite honestly, media and other people like to sensationalize things,” he said. “Graphic pictures of dead people grab people’s attention and we don’t think it’s appropriate.”
In his testimony, Hanlin said there are more than 100 homicide cases in Oregon each year and nearly 500 fatal traffic accidents, all of which “create opportunity through public records requests to obtain and exploit photos and images of someone’s deceased loved one.”
Les Zaitz, a former investigative reporter for The Oregonian who sits on Oregon’s Attorney General’s Public Records Law Reform Task Force, doesn’t buy the accusation that media companies would request such images for publication in the first place.
“I don’t think anyone in traditional media would sensationalize this,” he said. “I can’t imagine a circumstance where we would use, publish, or put on the air, pictures of deceased students.
“I’m just hard-pressed to imagine the discussion that says, ‘This is so overwhelmingly important to the public that we’re going to put this out,’” he said. “So I think to suggest that the media would sensationalize this is overstating the case.”
Zaitz says he questions whether the bill is an effort to stop media from publishing sensitive crime scene photos — something he doesn’t believe is happening in Oregon — or if the sheriff is attempting to remedy a problem that simply doesn’t exist.
The News-Review reached out to Hanlin several times by phone and email but the sheriff did not make himself available for an interview.
Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg said he supported the bill.
“I certainly support any and all efforts to protect the dignity and the privacy of crime victims and that is what this is intended to do,” he said.
Wesenberg said any concerns about the bill reducing government or police transparency were moot until the bill passed.
“We’re getting into the weeds. I mean this hasn’t become law yet,” he said.
“It’s like anything else,” he added. “If something is overboard then the courts can, and will, reign that in.”
By Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted the bill, but made the language more specific. Now, the bill addresses “images of a dead body, or parts of a dead body” that relate to a law enforcement agency’s investigation instead of exempting all images “related to” death.
Zaitz said the change was a step in the right direction, but he remained cautious of adding language to the state’s exemption list that unnecessarily restricts the public’s right to government information. He said Oregon law already has exemptions addressing privacy issues.
His main concern with the bill is the potential for it to weaken the public’s right to government information.
In an article published earlier this week by The Oregonian, Hanlin said it isn’t the job of journalists to look for wrongdoing by police.
Zaitz staunchly disagreed.
“The average citizen doesn’t have time to go to city council meetings, school board meetings, or to get public documents and to read through budgets or read through police reports,” he said. “The public ought to be counting on the media to safeguard the public’s right to good competent government. I strongly disagree with the sheriff that it’s not the media’s role to hold government accountable, it’s precisely what our role is.”